A Word to the Wiser

By Ferida Wolff

A Word to the Wiser

It all began when a new local store sent us a promotional copy of Poor Richard’s Almanack to induce us to check out their goods. I thumbed through it casually when, half an hour later, I realized I was hooked on Old Ben’s proverbs. Sometimes interesting, often obscure, these sayings commented on every facet of pre-revolutionary existence, instructing the reader how to live a moral and prosperous life.

I knew (didn’t everyone?) Ben’s “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” But there were others I didn’t know, such as, “Marry your daughter and eat fresh fish betimes,” and “A full belly makes a dull brain.” Not quite as catchy yet still thought-provoking in a kitschy kind of way. The sense and rhythm of the sayings intrigued me. I began quoting them to my family until the almanac mysteriously disappeared, and no one seemed able to find it.

Surely, I thought, if Ben Franklin could comment on his times through proverbs, I should be creative enough to comment on mine. I tried to think of something pithy to say to my husband as he was coming down for breakfast one morning but all I could come up with was our son’s rejoinder, ”Look up, look down, look here, look there. What are you looking for – your underwear?” As he was already dressed, I assumed he had found his underwear and needed no further encouragement.

Maybe this proverb making was more complicated than it seemed at first. I tried again when our daughter asked for a raise in her allowance: “Better a single coin worth its value than a barrelful of slugs.” It was a definite improvement on the underwear theme, I thought. It was even effective as she withdrew her request and, with many a backward glance, quietly left the room.

I countered our son’s plea for more television viewing time with, “Devoting your life to the idiot box will soon make you lose your wits.” I knew he got it because he was absolutely speechless. After all, a proverb is supposed to be the last word on any subject.

It took me a while to think of something appropriate in my campaign to get my husband exercising. Finally, at three in the morning, it came to me.

“Hey, Honey,” I said as I gently nudged him from his dreams. “Listen to this: Running FOR your health is better than running DOWN your health.”

“Go to sleep,” he grunted.

I eventually did, but by then I was hooked. Proverb-making became an obsession. I spent hours thinking up succinct sayings and had something Franklin-esque to say about every situation. I created them on the spot; anyone could give me subject, and I would come up with a saying. I laughed at my initial feeble gropings. Why, with a little effort, I had become an accomplished proverbian. This was heady stuff.

It was only a matter of time before my obsession overran the limited confines of the family unit and spread to the community at large.

The PTA parent who called to ask me to share the driving for a school trip was greeted with a sigh and a proverb: “The spirit becomes weary when the odometer climbs heavenward.”

“Does that mean you will or does it mean you won’t?” she asked.

“Oh, I will,” I said. “I was just making a philosophical statement about carpools.”

She hurriedly gave me instructions and hung up.

When my constantly dieting friend called to tell that she was on her third diet this month, I responded with, “The fad you eat today will be the food you eschew tomorrow.”

Silence.

I wasn’t sure whether or not she had hung up until I heard a meaningful lack of connection on the other end. I had been noticing that my conversations were getting shorter lately. In fact, I was getting fewer calls than I used to, fewer invitations, and, come to think of it, my husband and I hadn’t been asked out on a Saturday night for quite some time. Could it be something I said?

“Don’t you think that’s enough?” my husband said one day when I told him about my friend rudely hanging up without even saying goodbye.

“Enough?” I said. “Where is your sense of creativity? Of poetry?”

“Of sensitivity?” he asked.

I thought about that. Was it possible I had been led astray? How come Ben Franklin didn’t end up alienating people with his sayings? Or did he? I’ll never know because that bit of information wasn’t included in the book.

In the morning, my daughter asked me if she could go to her friend’s house after school. I opened my mouth but before I could say yes, I saw panic rising in her eyes. She grabbed her books and said, “Never mind.”

“But I didn’t answer,” I said.

“You were going to say something weird, I just know it!”

“But…”

“I have to catch my bus,” my daughter said, and she raced out of the house.

I stood looking at the door she had just closed, somewhat loudly I might add, and then decided that perhaps it might be a mistake to continue with my new found skill. I would take the wiser position and stage a strategic withdrawal from proverb-making, at least for a while. After all, I think it was good old Ben who said, “To err is human, to repent divine; to persist devilish.”

About this writer

  • Ferida Wolff Ferida Wolff is author of 17 books for children and three essay books for adults. A frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, she also writes for newspapers and magazines, online at www.grandparents.com and is a columnist for www.seniorwomen.com. Her website is www.feridawolff.com, and her newest book is Missed Perceptions: Challenge Your Thoughts Change Your Thinking (Pranava Books 2009).

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